I Was a PSSA Apologist

Back when I first got into administration in 2005, the PSSA debate was beginning to rage. The tests had recently been added to grades 4, 6 and 7 and middle school and intermediate elementary teachers were beginning to lose their autonomy. Since I had recently graduated from graduate school, I believed that the tests were necessary. I would defend the tests by saying that the state just wanted to assure that teachers were teaching what was necessary for students to be successful. They had in effect given us a blueprint of what students should learn and we just needed to follow it. I remember a parent that was making her child cram to do well on the PSSA. The idea made me laugh because I knew that the test was meant to test schools and teachers not students. Even though now that seems very much like using student as pawns, it didn’t occur to me then.

Like the most faithful of religious zealots I drank of the proverbial Kool-Aid.

After eight years of thinking more critically I realize that the PSSA is punishing students in order to determine that public schools are bad. There is way too much more going on here. Companies are getting rich by designing tests and then designing the study guides to help students achieve proficiency. That is not improving education; that is narrowing the curriculum. People with no background in education are influencing not only what students learn but how they are assessed.

I can’t help but believe that the whole convoluted mess is intentionally driving out public education in favor of for profit schools. When you see governments conspiring with lobbyists and billionaires to determine the standards for learning you have to wonder if the standards are set so that students fail. When students fail, schools fail and when public schools fail, charter and for profits are able to flourish.

There is plenty of evidence today that the America that we knew 20 years ago is gone. Everything deemed valuable must be made better through competition and profiteering. The rich will continue to get rich on the backs of the poor. In the case of standardized testing maybe the rich realize the poor have nothing more to give so they are going after their state subsidies. Assure that the poor schools fail – pretty easy because economic background seems to be the most significant indicator of test performance – and then take the money that the state would give to some run down city school and bring the poor kid to a charter.

PSSA is our example here in Pennsylvania but every state has one. Some of them more draconian than others. From the beginning, every state knew that it would not be possible to have 100% of the students be proficient by 2014. Now 2014 is right around the corner and panic has set in. PDE has withdrawn the modified test for special education students assuring that the percentage of students making AYP will decrease. Don’t worry, the charters will take your special education students at a 100% mark up.

I apologize for being a defender of the PSSA. Now people must act.

Trust Me ;)

“Integrity has no need for rules.” -Albert Camus

This week the graduate program led us to the topic of trust in the workplace. In my estimation there probably couldn’t be a timelier subject for educators. Not sure that it is the same everywhere but trust is no where to be found in the Pennsylvania Department of Education. I had an unfortunate conversation last week with a teacher in our building. Noticing that the implementation of the PA Common Core Standards had been pushed back a year, he wondered if it was due to the new teacher evaluation and PDE thinking it may not be fair to evaluate teachers on an assessment that contained new content. I laughed out loud. I wish I would have held on to some of that naivete that allowed me to think that PDE had the best interest of teachers and schools at heart. I say it was unfortunate because I probably should have held back but I didn’t. I assured him that if PCC was pushed back it had nothing to do with teachers, it probably had to do with money. I had lost my trust in my “employer.” Not that I work directly for the PDE but don’t all of us answer to their mandates?

I don’t believe my distrust is misplaced. Recently the Bureau of Assessment  the long arm of the PSSA, determined that beginning this year, all teachers who administer or proctor the standardized assessment will be trained by a computer module that will be completed online. This job was previously completed by the building principal or school assessment coordinator. Apparently there is no trust in the way that was being completed. (Read: we are all cheaters or at best half-assed at our jobs). In addition we received a communique from PDE telling us exactly how we must discipline our students if they are caught with cell phones during the PSSA or the Keystone Exams. You know, because if they don’t tell us, we don’t have the capacity to use our common sense. They don’t trust the administrators who are responsible for the results.

One more, just for good measure. Currently in New York and California administrators must undergo “calibration” training sessions in order to assure that there is interrater reliability when using the Framework for Teachers. Oh, how I wish I was kidding. It’s coming to Pennsylvania too if it is not already here. You should read the article in the link. I don’t think I can explain it any better.

I know what you’re thinking: “What’s so bad about making sure that everyone is seeing the same thing?” Well, the problem is that we do this everyday. We have a vision for our school and believe it or not we work hard to make sure that we have the best schools that we can have. We definitely don’t need a non educator telling us how it should be. Bill Gates is an extremely intelligent guy but he never spent a day with 30 teacher and 500 kids. He is the hero of calibration. And we feel like the trust is gone. 

I could go on. Tom Corbett’s assault on PSERS not to mention education funding in general. Michelle Rhee’s, another non educator, report card for public schools. Jeb Bush’s Cheifs for Change, Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and his RESPECT Project. Corbett is the only teacher in the group and the knew pretty early that he couldn’t do the job. There’s not even any indication on the PDE website indicating that Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis ever taught. But why does that matter, Arne Duncan never taught.

Trust? Trust who? It does make sense to rebuild education from the outside. I would want a lawyer telling my doctor how to improve my health and the doctor would be a great help in expanding the mechanical capacity of my mechanic. I think the dentist should critique the local cop during a ride along or may he can go with the fire company. 

Like my grandfather used to say, “You can trust a dog to watch your house but you can’t trust him to watch your sandwich.”

False Proxy + False Proxy = Your Life

Inspiration to write can come from a lot of places. For me it comes quite often from Seth Godin‘s blog and a friend who goads me into connecting his work to education.

Today Mr. Godin blogged about false proxy traps. You can check out his blog for details. In a nutshell a false proxy is when a someone measures a component of something that is difficult to measure in order to justify the entire product. Good example: measuring the quality of a police force by how many people are put in jail. This measure would not take into account that a good police force may limit crime by there mere presence or that they are exemplary at solving problems. Crazy example: measuring the power of the Republican Party by watching Fox News exclusively.

Everyone may not agree but the forced high stakes testing required by NCLB is just such a trap. The idea of the testing program is to determine the quality of a school and its staff. Make no mistake about it. These tests, differently labeled in each state, were never meant to test the knowledge of students. The false proxy comes in when we try to take one test, administer it to thousands of students, and then compare them across a wide breadth of cultures, economies, and immeasurable demographics. My guess is that a district’s aggregate PSSA score can just as accurately determine the median income of the school’s coverage area as it can the success of the school. They could also pretty accurately determine the number of parents who attend parent conferences. The first thought would be easy to prove. Take every school and list them from high to low based on aid ratio (market value/personal income) and then make another list and sort them from low to high on district average PSSA score. I’d be willing to bet there is a high degree of comparability. It’s all public knowledge; give it a whirl!

So, I think we have shown pretty accurately that the PSSA is a false proxy for determining the quality of a school. Don’t get me wrong; some teacher’s should find a new career path. But I can compare scores of teacher’s that I work with who have abilities that are across the board in terms of quality instruction and the one’s that have limited skills have students who do just as well as the distinguished teacher’s students.

Second false proxy: The new Pennsylvania teacher evaluation model. This is even simpler. Charlotte Danielson developed this model to assist in improving the quality of teaching. Never, and the company developing the evaluation tool for Pennsylvania has admitted this, did she intend for the rubric to be diminished to a number. Statistically speaking, you can’t take a measure that is qualitative and quantify it. That is, however, what the Pennsylvania Department of Education intends to do. A tool built to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a teacher and guide him or her to being a distinguished educator will be used to measure his or her effectiveness.

Not only will it water all of this high quality information down to a single number but that number will count as 50% of a teacher’s – and eventually an administrator’s – annual evaluation. Throw in that another 15-30% of the annual evaluation will be determined by PSSA scores and you have a conglomeration of false proxies and statistical fallacies. Goog luck! Two years of low scores and poor observations or probably two years of average observations and average PSSA scores and you may be looking for a job – and me too!